May 2005

Arts & Letters

The ExFactor

By Malcolm Knox

BookScan and the death of the Australian novelist

Back when I was careless about what I wished for, someone asked a fanciful question, redolent of hope and innocence, about my up-coming first novel. “If you could choose, would you take critical approval or good sales?”

If I could choose! That “if” was the first sign of callowness, or hubris, followed quickly by the second. I said, of course, that while sales would be nice, and blah blah blah (insert condescending bromides about art versus commercialism here), what I really wanted was to connect with a certain type of reader, an experienced reader, a reader whose life this book could change, and if there were only a few readers of this kind I would still prefer their approving murmur to the roars of the great unwashed.

Bzzz. Wrong. Ah, wrong, wrong, wrong. Wrong. I was mistaking a question of degree for a question of category; you can be more or less praised but you cannot, ultimately, be more or less sold. A novel’s critical reception is only a matter of degree. My novels have been exalted and reviled, and neither lasts as long as a bruise. Being able to sell books, on the other hand, is the difference between being a novelist and an ex-novelist. A published author can write on through bad reviews, and even through good ones, through the snubs and commendations of award judges. But bad sales are the wall through which novelists can no longer ghost.

It was not always like this. There used to be such a thing as the Australian literary novelist who played to a small but discerning audience, whose books lost money but were worth publishing because of some intrinsic merit – such as the publisher’s belief that perhaps the author’s, and publisher’s, rewards were waiting in the next life. Now, however, although many publishers still possess this keen sense of literary worth, it is not a potent enough force to get books into print. Now we see two kinds of Australian literary novelists. There are commercially viable novelists, and there are ex-novelists. The ex-novelists are not failures. They are people who have won prizes, they are prolific and they may be visionaries, ahead of their time. But they cannot get their next book published. Look at the names of published Australian novelists six or seven years ago. Those who have disappeared have not necessarily stopped writing. Oh no, they haven’t stopped writing, and some are writing very well. But they can’t get published. Our literary culture is, like the culture at large, swelling with the ranks of the retrenched and the retired, the downsized and the divorced, a drifting shoal of exes.

In this scheme, I wear two hats. By day I am a newspaper literary editor, at The Sydney Morning Herald, which means that pretty much all of the fiction that is not self-published (and a lot that is) passes across my desk. So I stand at a lookout over the person I am in my other hat: the author of two novels, Summerland (2000) and A Private Man (2004), more or less critically successful, more or less liked by readers, but right on the bubble of making or losing my publisher’s money. I am someone who might once have relied on a publisher’s faith, through wild fancies and flown kites, for six or seven novels over a 15- or 20-year career, which is the amount of time it usually takes to know whether a novelist really has it or not. But from my day job’s viewpoint, I know what I am in 2005. I have got what I wished for – the appreciation of peers, experienced readers, readers who get it. I’m grateful for each and every one of them. They’re all important individuals to me.

But that’s the rub. If I wanted to, I could know them all personally. There are few enough of them, thousands rather than tens of thousands, and because there aren’t more of them I am an endangered species. There will not be 15 years and six novels of grace. There may not be any grace at all. Unless I improve my sales next time, if there is a next time, my card will be marked, and in the years when I thought I could look forward to writing my best work, my forties and fifties and sixties, when I have lived enough and written enough to know what I’m doing – or just to know a little bit better – I might be writing for an audience of one.

If this is to be a saleable story there ought to be a villain, and our villain is known as Nielsen Book-Scan (with that stock troll, the GST, lurking in the wings). BookScan makes me think of an exchange in Martin Amis’s The Information, a novel which measures Richard Tull’s tragicomic arc from novelist to ex-novelist. Richard is asked by a radio interviewer: “Don’t you wish sometimes that writing were just like sports? That you could just go out there and see who’d win? See who’s better. Measurably. With all the stats.”

If book sales are to become a spectator sport, Nielsen BookScan is the scoreboard. Introduced three years ago into Australia, BookScan tallies actual sales of books from stores around the country. It is supported by publishers, who pay tens of thousands of dollars for weekly information on exactly how many books they are selling. Note my use of “actual” and “exactly”. If BookScan provides exactitude it is replacing something else, an old order. The old order – a game of bluff – was massaged by publishers, and agents, to help their authors. The new order – precision – is used by number crunchers to help publishers’ bottom lines. The consequences for authors are, as Richard Tull might say, mixed.

In pre-BookScan days, here’s how it worked. A publisher would print, say, 5,000 copies in the first run of an Australian literary novel by an author with a reasonably high reputation. Around 4,000 might be “sold in”, or ordered by bookshops on a consignment basis. That is, the bookseller pays only for the books she sells, or “sells through”. (When “selling” is the verb, it’s the preposition that follows it that means everything.) Of those 4,000 copies a book might sell through about 2,000, the booksellers might keep 1,000 and another 1,000 would be returned.

When the novel’s individual publisher met her boss to review the book’s performance or consider acquiring the novelist’s next effort, she would be asked how the earlier book “did”. If the publisher wanted to back the author, she might say the book sold 5,000, or she’d round it to 4,000. (Publishers still do this, hyping sales by quoting the “sold in” rather than “sold through” figure. The difference is, they now pull this on outsiders – press, public, booksellers, potential foreign rights buyers – and sometimes to the insecure author as well. But not to the boss.) In fact, the book sold only 1,732 copies. Two hundred and twelve of these were ex-royalty, or offloaded in some way (freebies, for example) that fell outside the BookScan net. So an author who was once thought to have reliably sold 4,000 or 5,000 copies is now known – known – to sell 1,520.

Publishers, and the people who work in publishing houses, pore as eagerly over the weekly BookScan figures as punters over the weekend race placings. Perhaps the better analogy is the form guide; because while BookScan indicates past sales, it is used to predict the future. This means that an author may be beavering away at War and Peace while, in an office in the city, the publisher is reviewing that author’s last book’s BookScan sales – ticking over the 2,000 mark after one year, edging towards 2,250 a year later – and the fate of War and Peace is being decided before it is even finished. Writers used to publisher-hop their way around this problem. If their publisher cooled on them, their agents would offer them to a rival publisher and, for want of a better word, lie about the author’s past sales. Even this route has been shut off by BookScan, as agent Fiona Inglis explains: “You can’t pump up an author’s previous sales because BookScan has enabled all the publishers to know how all the others are selling. Everyone knows everything now.” There are exceptions. At all of Australia’s multinational publishing houses, and certainly at the small independents, some publishers believe in their authors and will continue to publish them regardless of past sales, if they can.

If they can. Everywhere you go now, everywhere in the world, you hear publishers complaining that they no longer make the decisions to publish books. Peter Straus, who at Picador UK was my publisher and one of the best publishers around, used to grizzle about all the decisions foisted upon him by sales and marketing. So he stopped grizzling; he quit, to become an agent. Decisions to publish books are made at acquisitions meetings, where the power is held not by the publishers but increasingly by those responsible for making the company profitable (or less unprofitable). In the old days publishers were entrusted with this task. But as local publishing companies were eaten by multinational media conglomerates, their imprints were put into the harness of the management-school notion of “segmentation”. The iron rule of segmentation is that a business works best when it is chopped up into small units, each of which becomes accountable for its own financial results. No more cross-subsidisation. No more best-selling diet books paying the freight for highbrow fiction. No more Bryce Courtenay propping up a literary debutant. As segmentation set in, literary publishers were perceived to have failed. Here they were, playing indulgent sugar-daddies and sugar-mummies to their house artists. They could not be trusted to make money, so responsibility was steadily taken over by the salespeople and their outriders in marketing and publicity. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard publishers apologise, to me or to other authors, about their impotence.

“I’d have loved to publish your novel but sales and marketing say they just can’t see a place for it.”

“I hate your cover too but sales really believe it’s going to capture a new market for you.”

Or, perhaps just as discouragingly: “We’ll publish it. Sales and marketing think it’s going to fly, and publicity can see the chance for a lot of radio and TV.”

Writers, scared of repercussions, shy away from talking on the record about their struggles. “It might jinx me,” says one. But the stories they tell privately of the reasons publishers give for nixing their work reminds me of a rejection my own agent received, from a British publisher, for my second novel. “I think he’s a terrific writer,” wrote the self-described “dejected” publisher. “He’s full of energy, has a nicely black vision and is clearly keen to tell a story. What’s more, he’s adventurous in his subject. But I’m not sure quite what to sell it as – a good book should be enough, of course ...”

The point is, most individual book publishers still know what’s good. It’s just that they are trying to draw a straight line in curved space. They don’t make the decisions anymore. They have been cauterised out of the process. The spark was multinational strategy but the accelerant is BookScan, because people in sales and marketing, and their managing directors who increasingly come from sales backgrounds, understand numbers. They may not understand literature (sometimes they do but keep it to themselves when confronted by their superiors). What they do understand is numbers.

It’s not just the sales reps and bean-counters who have been sucked into the scoreboard mentality. Ask a publisher if a book “did well” and you’re not going to get a summary of glowing reviews. If it won prizes, they are consolation prizes. “So and so won the Premier’s Award, which is nice for her but the book sank.” Brian Castro, a real artist and a rare novelist who does stand a chance of being read a hundred years from now, couldn’t get his last novel, Shanghai Dancing, published with a major house. He went to Ivor Indyk’s start-up Giramondo Publishing and won just about every award going. Still the book didn’t sell more than a few thousand copies, and I never heard a publisher express regret that they hadn’t backed an award-winning, authentic (and commercially self-sufficient) novel. “Brian Castro?” said one. “More awards than readers.”

Is BookScan necessarily a bad thing? The end of bluffing may hurt only those authors who have been over-protected. Who can presume to an audience, in these days or any other? In the age of globalisation, why should authors be sheltered from the cold winds of competition? This hard-nosed counter-argument deserves scrutiny, and not only because it is winning. It is not necessarily a philistine position either. Why should a company put up money so I can lose it? I’m all for accountability and, as a novelist, I suppose I’d rather face truth than be shielded from it. Nobody can publish my books profitably? I don’t connect with enough readers? Well, I’ve brought down enough trees. I’ll go and plant some. Goodbye.

But wait. Accountability always has a hidden, or assumed, component – and that is time. The question is not simply: has this novelist been successful? The question is: when are we qualified to make that judgement? And why should that time be right now? For authors, the stronger argument against Book-Scan is not a kind of effete cheek-turning from accountability: “Ah, spare me those base sales figures and just deposit my next advance in my account.” The stronger argument is that BookScan promotes precipitous, premature judgement. It inflames the short-term, the buzz. Who’s up, who’s down this week? This short-term outlook is aggravated by space limits in bookstores, which leave a book only three months or so to make an impression. If it doesn’t take off within that time it will be returned. No re-orders. If that happens across the country the book is effectively dead. Gone. Within three months.

This initial window is so small, and so crucial, that all books fall increasingly into the same marketing category as the Christmas book, or the Mother’s Day or Father’s Day book: books that have to sell by a certain date or else they go off. Publishers say books have a shorter shelf life than yoghurt. And that’s the publishers talking. I know one bestselling author who phones his publisher like clockwork when the BookScan figures arrive. “How did we do last week?” They snicker away over another few thousand, another reprint. (I’d be snickering too. But in my case, when my publisher doesn’t feel game to tell me how few copies my book has sold, she says: “It’s too soon to tell.” I purr agreement. But there’s a disconnection between us. She’s thinking, optimistically, about the next six or 12 months. I’m thinking, hyper-optimistically as it turns out, about the next decade. Ah, by 2020 they’ll know my true value ...)

What it means for the book is that it must be hyped, it must have some “platform” as US book marketers call it, to shunt it above the crowd. The author must have a saleable persona. A good Australian example is Greg Roberts, author of Shantaram, who guaranteed his own publicity by being an escaped prisoner who smuggled arms and worked in Bollywood and based his novel on his life. The fiction was marketed, unashamedly, as if it were non-fiction. But that’s what it takes.

When all books must jostle for attention in this way it is easy to see the winners and losers in fiction. The winners are the brand names (Courtenay, McCullough, Morrissey, Reilly), the literary brand names (Carey, Winton, Malouf) and the exotics, like Roberts and the ubiquitously anonymous Nikki Gemmell. The losers are the mid-listers, who work away at improving their art but are known quantities and hence platform-less, as Gemmell was before she became Anon. The losers are also young first-time literary authors, now that the fad of the freshest face has worn off. As one measure of this, The Sydney Morning Herald has for nearly a decade run an award for new Australian novelists. The number of annual candidate books has swung between 15 and 25, more than half literary or non-genre. This year there are 11 entries, and only four or five could be called literary in intent. Penguin has none. Random House one. Pan Macmillan only one, and that’s Matthew Reilly. Allen & Unwin, which runs the Vogel Award for authors under the age of 35, supplies almost half the year’s new Australian novelists.

The ambitiously titled “honour roll” of previous Herald award-winners reveals a story of its own. Some – Sonya Hartnett, Mandy Sayer, Luke Davies, Andrew McGahan – have published prolifically since receiving the award. But they are a minority. Anthony Macris published the brilliant Capital Vol I eight years ago; his second novel, rejected by Allen & Unwin, now has its thumb out on the side of the highway. Bernard Cohen, a three-time winner, has found the quality of his writing is no defence against moderate sales. Georgia Blain, after three well-executed novels, left Penguin a couple of years ago during – if not because of – that publisher’s night of the long knives, a cull of its authors who were not commercial enough. Her fourth novel, Names for Nothingness, was thrown a line by Picador. Then there are others – Camilla Nelson, Lisa Merrifield, Claire Mendes, Raimondo Cortese – who have not been published since, and not necessarily because they haven’t been writing. Those who are being published again, like Delia Falconer (eight years between novels one and two) and Elliot Perlman (six years), are taking longer, stepping up to bigger, more ambitious novels, because they are aware of how much is at stake. And these are only the cream, the best of their generation. Even for the best there are no guarantees, no careers.

A writer’s first or second novel should not be so terribly important; it’s the research and development phase. Imagine demanding commercial success of technological projects which are still in R&D. Again, the aptest metaphor lies at the racetrack, where Australian thoroughbreds have declined in quality for about two decades because of the lure of the Golden Slipper and other multi-million dollar races for two-year-olds. Our Derby and Cup winners are mostly bred overseas now. Australian studs breed fast-twitch adolescents because that’s where the quick money is. Our breeding stocks are front-ended into youth, they win or flame out while they’re kids, and the Australian breed as a whole loses stamina and durability. The same goes for writers. Impatience damages the culture. Sometimes you just can’t gauge true worth right now.

The most serious concern about BookScan, which publishers themselves share, is the way it is influencing the public. Publishers don’t lead opinion. They grab the tiger’s tail and hope to hang on. A number of people have tried to dissuade me, as literary editor of a metropolitan newspaper, from printing weekly Top Ten lists sourced from BookScan. The reason? Dan Brown. “Who wants to see the same four Dan Brown books every week?” If it’s not Dan Brown it’s J.K. Rowling, backed up by a support cast of James Patterson, John Grisham and Marian Keyes.

It is not my role, as a journalist, to doctor facts. We’re sticking with BookScan because it provides the truth, no matter how unpalatable. In the pre-BookScan days, newspapers published bestseller lists based on samples taken randomly from bookstores. They favoured independent booksellers, skewing the lists towards literary fiction and non-fiction. Which, as a novelist, I’m all for. As a journalist I know it was a distortion. As boring as it is to see The Da Vinci Code become the Dark Side of the Moon of publishing, newspapers should not be in the business of sugar-coating the fact.

What is really disconcerting is that BookScan seems to be reflecting a mass retreat from risk. This is hardly unique to the books business. People want guarantees; they want to know that the book they are going to spend their nights with is going to be good. Anyone who reads a lot knows how absurd this is. But the marketplace does not consist of people who read a lot. It consists of people who read two to six books a year, and they are fleeing towards the familiar. The nearest thing they have to a guarantee is BookScan’s bestseller list. If everyone else is reading Dan Brown, it must be worthwhile. I ought to find out what the fuss is about. The market has spoken, and I want to sing along. And so readers become a herd. Post-BookScan, here and overseas, some books do extraordinarily well, far better than before. Dan Brown’s earlier three novels were dogs. They were dogs because they were no good, and they were dogs because they didn’t sell. But after The Da Vinci Code they were resold with “by the author of ...” on their covers. And hey presto, they are the new thing.

If the Harry Potter experience brought people to reading, it also brought them to herding. People now respond to books the way children respond to yoyos. In Britain, Mark Haddon’s nice adolescent novel A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was a moderate seller until it was promoted by a TV book club. Then it didn’t just become a bestseller; it became a million-seller. It got into the BookScan Top Ten and this provided a self-fulfilling feedback loop. Thanks to BookScan and the way people use it, we live in an age of monsters. Gemmell’s The Bride Stripped Bare and Norma Khouri’s Forbidden Love were not just best-selling books in 2003. They were mega-sellers. Each book, in a different way, was fiction masquerading as memoir. Khouri’s was a fraud, Gemmell’s a tease. But it didn’t matter. They appeared on BookScan, created a fuss, and then BookScan itself became their sharpest marketing tool. They passed the critical mass – about 10,000 to 20,000 sales in a country the size of Australia – where readers cease to care about the distinction between non-fiction and fiction, or about other ethical and literary nuances, where people want to be entertained and diverted and to keep up with the crowd. This is how BookScan skews behaviour. It creates a fever for keeping up with the crowd. And this is a conclusion that authors, booksellers and publishers share. It is our common ground.

BookScan, then, is not the villain or the hero in itself. It is a cipher for the people who buy books. If mid-list or first-time authors wish to understand why their manuscripts are being rejected, and if readers of challenging new literary fiction are finding less of it, they need not look at the book business. They can look at any business. The big are winning, not because they are evil but because they are familiar. BookScan provides – owns – the gateway through which the familiar makes itself known. Dan Brown becomes familiar because people buy him, and people buy him because he’s familiar.

This offers no consolation to the genuine artists who want to give their readers what Patrick White or David Malouf or Peter Carey or Thea Astley have given them. Nor does it console those publishers who would rather produce something they will be proud of in ten years’ time than something that saves their job or gets them a bonus at the next merit review. It’s all about time. Today’s literary brand names were once unknown and unmarketable. Artists were given the patience, the loyalty, the faith, to persevere over the only timeframe that matters: the long view. Which is not to say they are owed a living. Novelists can – do – live without money. What they cannot live without is publication. That they are rarely given that time anymore is due to management structures that reward immediate results. Measurably. With all the stats. But beneath that, they are suffering the judgement of a changing world that wants to read for escape rather than transcendence, for relaxation rather than exercise, and whose principle for choosing what to read is to look around the train carriage and say: “I’ll have what he’s having.”

Malcolm Knox

Malcolm Knox is a former literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, and has won three Walkley awards for journalism. His books include Jamaica and The Life, and his new novel, Bluebird, will be published in September 2020.

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